California beaches, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Seattle’s Space Needle might come to mind when thinking of America’s West Coast. But Portland Oegon is unlikely to feature highly. The ‘Beaver State’ is often overlooked when considering a West Coast trip due to its glitzy neighbours, with Washington to the north and California and Nevada to the south. But there’s good news for travellers looking for a new part to conquer: a new direct route from London to Portland offers the chance to discover a city that captures some truly worthwhile attractions on America’s Pacific Coast.
A 10-hour flight and a shorter transfer and I’m at The Heathman Hotel in Portland Oregon’s Downtown, an area filled with interesting contrasts. Towering historic hotels stand a street away from small restaurants adorned in modern street murals. Pioneer Square, an open space nicknamed “Portland’s Living Room,” is bustling with street food vendors attracting early breakfast crowds. I chuckle at a food truck titled “Fried Egg I’m In Love”. The concrete monoliths surrounding it wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan, but the feel of the people and businesses are distinctly West Coast.
My guide describes a “Maker Culture” in the city, denoting how alongside the expected chain stores are a pleasing amount of thriving independent businesses. There’s Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, stuffed with new and used literary classics for the pilgrims who flock to browse the shelves. Alongside the designer label stores are boutiques like Wildfang, which celebrates Gender Neutral fashion. If I’m not buying a product from the person who made it I’m being offered a leaflet or sticker celebrating the person that did.
This homemade feel extends across the city as I venture out further. The condos and Victorian architecture of SE Division Street suggest I’d left the commerce behind and entered a residential area. However, Division has become famous for its streets filled with independent businesses and restaurants. There’s a local motto which I quite like, “Keep Portland Weird,” and I spy a store dedicated to The Occult, and the striking site of a shop dedicated to taxidermy. But I gravitate toward local businesses selling ice cream and footwear.
Some of the eccentricity lives up to the hipster reputation Portland has earned from the comedy show Portlandia, but walking around the brightly coloured stretch is an experience like no other. Over at the Portland-based Aviation Gin’s distillery, newly opened to the public, gin makers are crushing juniper with cricket bats and leading drinkers into an escape room themed after the brand’s owner Ryan Reynolds. We’d missed the Deadpool star by one day, sadly, as he’d flown in for a visit and to clink gin glasses for the opening. Of course, there’s the tasting room and guided tour too.
Artisan beverages are something of a trend in the area. As well as gin I sipped unusual infusions in Steven Smith’s Tea Rooms as the nearby trains roll by, and took a short drive into the countryside to visit the 12-acre Amaretta winery and restaurant where diners overlook rolling hills which plays stage to a gorgeous sunset.
Dinner options reveal more about the eccentricity of Portland Oregon. There’s Southeast Portland’s Hawthorne Asylum, an eye-catching street food ‘pod’ where punters try a variety of cuisines in a space that looks ripped from a Tim Burton movie. A favourite eatery of mine was Oma’s Hideaway, an offbeat restaurant influenced by Portland’s Southeast Asian community, which has roots in the city going back to the 1800s. Inspired by the head chef’s grandmother (or Oma), the fusion cuisine was inspired by her ability to create incredible dishes using disparate resources. Their menu also offers cocktails that raise money for good causes – a great reason to order another.
By night, things get even livelier. Downtown lured me with everything from the usual sports bars to spots like Darcelle XV Showplace, a historic drag venue owned and operated by the world’s oldest drag queen, Darcelle XV, still lip synching at 91. Later it was back to Division Street, where many bars were open late, like the airy setting and stylish Someday cocktail bar, or Portland institution Reel M Inn, serving fried chicken and beer until 2.30am. For those really missing home, I passed “soccer” themed bar Gol a few blocks away.
Living alongside the energy of Portland’s evolving urban identity are nature spots that are designed to relax and restore. To the west of the city is Portland Japanese Garden. Considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of the island nation, I felt transported to anywhere but a thriving city as I took in incredible plant life, serene ponds, and a tranquil village courtyard where live performances take place and there’s a café serving Japanese cuisine. With the trees rising to block out the outside world, it was remarkable how quickly my shoulders relaxed and let nature do its healing. If you prefer waterfalls over wi-fi, a trip to the wider state offers legendary adventures.
I’m driven 30 miles outside of Portland Oregon to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, an awkward name for a beautiful place. As the title suggests, it’s a canyon forged by the river that divides Oregon from Washington, and it offers a trail of waterfalls that would make any Instagrammer whip out their phone with a sharp draw of breath. While the wet weather meant I wasn’t exactly camera ready, the highlight was walking along the foot bridge of Multnomah Falls, squeezing in-between the selfie taking tourists to take a few quiet moments to gawp at a natural wonder.
Some West Coast cities can wear you down with a forced sense of identity, perhaps bolstered by over tourism and the demands of the hordes that pass through wanting the same experience they’ve seen on the TV. But as I left Portland I got the feeling of a place that was just beginning to redefine itself. There’s a sincerity to this change. Locals are wanting to utilise their city’s creativity rather than create another tourist trap.
Perhaps one day this individuality will become self-conscious and more blatantly touristic. But for now, Portland stakes a claim to be one of the best in The West.
Visit Portland Oregon yourself
British Airways Holidays offers five nights at the The Heathman Portland Oregon from around £1,069pp, travelling on selected dates in 2023, including economy (World Traveller) return flights from London Heathrow Airport, 23kg luggage allowance and accommodation.
Read more City A.M. travel relating to West Coast USA here